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The YMCA, under CEO Kevin Washington, has played an important role in propping up the nation’s fraying safety net during a pandemic that has also taken a severe financial toll on the Y. More than 1,000 Y’s have been involved in some form of emergency food distribution, often working with local partners. Many Y’s have seen their food-distribution efforts increase tenfold. The Y has played a critical role in caring for the children of essential workers, looking after up to 40,000 kids in June alone. The Y’s also converted spaces into homeless shelters, partnered with the Red Cross on blood drives and helped check in on seniors and members of vulnerable communities to help ward off loneliness. Now the organization is reopening day camps during the crucial summer months.
Meanwhile, a pause in gym memberships helped account for the Y’s $800 million revenue shortfall for April and May. A handful of Y’s have shut down, and more closures are likely. To keep afloat, more than 500 Y’s across the U.S. received paycheck-protection loans from the federal government.
Washington, 66, is the first African-American CEO of the YMCA of the USA; he started working at the Y 42 years ago as a youth-program director, after first becoming involved in Y programs when he was 10. He credits the Y with providing him a safe alternative to gang life on the streets of South Philadelphia. Washington joined TIME for a video conversation to talk about pivoting during the crisis, diversity in Y leadership, and what young people expect of today’s leaders.
This interview with YMCA of the USA CEO Kevin Washington has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A U.S. Census Bureau report recently found that about 25 million Americans aren’t getting enough food to eat during the week. How has the Y helped address that situation?
We knew with schools closed that communities would be destitute in looking for food, particularly because of the significant unemployment issues [and] furloughs that were being dealt with. The Y stepped up and partnered with food banks and other entities to ensure that there was a continuous supply of food for those kids and families that needed it.
What does it say about this country that so many people are living so close to the edge, that they are in need of emergency food?
It continues to show the significant inequities that exist in this country. And the thing that the pandemic has done is highlighted them. The question for us is, what are we going to do about it? What are we going to do about it as a country? The significant number of inequities—they’re staring us in the face. And this is not about politics. It’s about basic dignity and basic necessities that we want all people to have.
How is the Y helping chart the path forward?
First, in order for us as an organization, we have got to work on ourselves. You cannot address inequities in this country if you haven’t done the work on yourself first and foremost. You’ve got to understand that what we have before us didn’t just happen. It’s been with us for over 400 years.
You’re the first African-American CEO. How old is the Y?
It’s 176 years old.
The word overdue is coming up a lot lately in conversations.
What I will tell you is that as a person who grew up in the ’60s, and seeing some of the things that have happened in the civil rights movement and beyond, I will tell you that I’m sad. I’m frustrated. I’m angry. But I’m hopeful.
I’m hopeful because of what I see in the streets today is what I would call a rainbow coalition of people. Particularly young people. My heart is with young people. I see young people who really are different, have different perspectives, have different understandings about what diversity, inclusion and equity mean. So I’m very hopeful.
So it feels different than the ’60s?
It feels different. But what I want to see is how do we address practices and policies and laws? Great, monuments are coming down. It’s good for public relations. Practices, policies, laws is what I want to see.
You are putting your faith in young people?
I say this all the time, that nothing’s changed in any country, any revolution, on any issue, unless it was led by young people. People forget Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 when he started. When George Williams founded the YMCA, he was 22.
You mentioned looking at your own organization. How has the Y done? Are you satisfied with diversity at the Y?
I don’t know if you ever could be satisfied. You always want to be better. We have a good team of people from a diversity inclusion perspective. We can be better. We need to be better, our leaders, who lead that movement across the country. We’re not where we need to be. Absolutely not.
A lot of organizations with storied histories are looking back at their own records and finding things that they’re not proud of and taking steps to change. What about the Y?
We are an American institution. It’s been around since 1851 in the States. [The organization was founded in 1844 in London.] We represent the history of America. So all those things that were prevalent within the American society are reflected in the YMCA. If you look at the history of America, from 1851 on, you look at the history of the Y because we were part of that. We had segregated Y’s. We can’t deny it. It’s real.
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Let’s shift to another service that you provided during the pandemic, taking care of the children of essential workers. How did that come about when Y’s were forced to close?
We pivoted. First and foremost, the Y is by any stretch of imagination the largest provider of child-development services in the country. Period. It was very essential. There’s no way the economy can open or those kinds of services couldn’t be provided because people had kids and families that needed to be taken care of. Doctors, first responders, people in grocery stores, drugstores. They needed somewhere to put their kids with schools being closed.
The Y is also a huge part of many seniors’ lives, and the pandemic has taken a toll on older people. What have you done in that area?
We’ve got 22 million YMCA members across this country. A million of them are seniors. And many of them are living alone. The Y is this socialization place where they come together to meet, engage with people. And so when that’s taken away from them, there’s a sense of isolation that can develop. Many YMCAs took it upon themselves to make sure they reached out to those individuals, to make sure they were getting what they needed. Make sure they were connecting with them. Doing Zoom classes with them. Having Zoom conversations with them. To ensure that there was an opportunity for them to connect with other human beings. To help prevent social isolation and depression.
And now it’s summertime, camp season. What is happening with your day camps and sleepaway camps?
The first is most of our what we call resident camps, sleepaway camps, have decided not to open. Our day camps? Many of them are operating. Because they are really essential services extended for kids and families.
You’ve been busy.
I should add that we were around in 1918 and went through a pandemic before too.
This is not your first pandemic.
I don’t want to do this ever, ever, ever again.
How much of what you’re doing do you feel like is an essential service that the government should be providing?
That’s why we asked them for money. [Laughs.] Here’s the reality. What the government has the capacity to do is to give resources to the nonprofit sector like the Y and others, to do this work on their behalf. And do it at a much deeper level, less expensive, and in a much more authentic way because they have the relationships in those communities.
Did Y’s access the PPP?
Many YMCAs were able to access PPP money. And I will tell you for many of them, that was a lifeblood to support them through this process.
This has taken a tremendous financial toll on the Y, right?
One of the reasons why we went after the federal government to get resources—just in the month of April, the losses of revenue for the movement approached $400 million. One month.
How concerned are you about the financial health of the Y system?
I’m very concerned, because like most nonprofits, most of our YMCAs don’t have significant reserves. We’re sure that there will be some YMCAs that will not be able to survive.
When did you first encounter the Y?
I was born and raised in South Philadelphia. They had youth directors that would go to schools and form these clubs of boys. Unfortunately, it was only boys then. I was 10 years old at the time. The Christian Street YMCA: still there today. My mom would always ask where I was. I was at the Y. I learned to volunteer there. My brother, we had a church [basketball] league on Friday nights that involved most of the churches in the community. I wasn’t old enough or good enough at that time to play. I kept score. And I cleaned the gym.
What kind of neighborhood was it? What were the alternatives?
There weren’t too many. When I grew up, either you were going to get involved in sports or a street gang. And I was fortunate enough to get engaged in sports and sidestep some of the other issues that a lot of my friends fell into. That was because of the Y.
Are you still in touch with your friends that took another path?
Several of them are no longer with us. I lost my first friend, his name was Chuckie, he was 13. He got stabbed. He was 13. He died. Some of my best friends … no longer with us. Losing those relationships at an early age, it’s very tough. The Y helped me. The Y kept me from that. It gave me a place, a safe haven.
What was your home life like growing up?
We weren’t the richest family in the world. But we were rich in terms of our relationships. I’m number four of six. My mother and father were there, and took care of us. Whatever pennies they could put together, we always, always had a good time. Didn’t have much. But we had a great family in terms of our ability and our love for each other. We still have that today.
What character traits did your parents infuse in you that you bring to work with you every day?
Watching my father who worked as a packer in an assembly line. Didn’t make a lot of money. But I could count the days on my hands that he missed work. We watched him when he was sick, when he was tired. Always got up on Monday morning and went to work. My mother, had she been in a different era, she would have gone to college and graduated. Smart, read books. Took care of the house. Made sure we got what we needed, meals and everything. Hard worker, took care of us. And put some discipline in us. She made us do our chores.
What did your father pack at work?
Lamps. He worked there for probably 35 years.
You went to Temple University on a basketball scholarship. What position did you play? Did you have a go-to move?
I was a guard. I had a mean crossover. I was left-handed, and everybody would try to play me to my left. They couldn’t stop it.
Do you still play basketball?
Not anymore. I watch it a lot. But I don’t play it anymore. I’m old. I’ve got a belly that gets in the way quite a bit for my jump shot.
What was your first paid job at the Y?
I was the youth-program director, 1978, $10,000 a year. I was rich. [Laughs.]
And now you are running it, 42 years later.
Well, let me just say this. For a person who’s grown up in the ’60s and now 66 years old, it’s different. It’s different because we have so many of our young people who work for us, and I’m sure that you probably experience it at TIME, is that they expect and demand a different kind of leadership. They’re not as patient with the status quo or the hierarchy of an organization or a company. And there’s no question, not only do I feel it, but all of our leaders who lead YMCAs across the country feel that pressure of young folks pushing us. And sometimes uncomfortably, but pushing us to areas that we may not want to go as quickly as they want us to go there.
It’s a tricky time to be in charge.
It’s a very tricky time. You’re balancing what you know folks want. What you need to do—and they expect you to take a stand. They don’t want to hear. You have to take a stand.
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AUTHORS: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Colson Whitehead. Malcolm Gladwell. James Baldwin.
DAILY STRESS RELIEVER: I go on what I call spiritual walks. But golf is my way I really relieve my stress now.